This Sunday, Death Takes a Lifetime of Preparation
In the Gospel this Sunday, the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Jesus tells a story about ancient wedding customs that delivers a lesson that we are learning today through cutting-edge technology.
The wise and foolish versions are just like us after the last few weeks of Sunday Readings: waiting.
We heard about the great wedding banquet that we are all invited to. All we need to do is show up at it, with our baptismal garment clean as new. Then we heard how to keep our wedding garment clean: Love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. On All Saints Day, we saw how so many of us succeed.
This week we see how so many of us fail.
The 10 wise and foolish versions seem to be doing everything right. They responded an eager “Yes!” to the invitation, and are dressed and ready for the banquet to start. They also seem to have their moral lives in order — their one identity is “virgins,” after all.
So, why did the foolish ones fail? Because they needed to do something that can’t be done at the last minute. They needed to collect and conserve enough oil to last the night. They can only do that over time in the light of day.
By analogy, they can’t build a relationship with God worthy of heaven overnight. A relationship needs emotional and spiritual fuel: That means a process of getting to know him, spending time with him, bringing our worries and joys and sorrows to him and seeing over time the subtle and not-so-subtle ways he responds to us.
It also means developing the habit of service to others for his sake. That also requires a slow, daily effort, as Mother Teresa once explained.
“What is necessary is to continue to love?” she asks. “How does a lamp burn, if it is not by the continuous feeding of little drops of oil? When there is no oil, there is no light and the bridegroom will say: ‘I do not know you.’ Dear friends, what are our drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things from everyday life: the joy, the generosity, the little good things, the humility and the patience. A simple thought for someone else. Our way to be silent, to listen, to forgive, to speak and to act … are the real drops of oil that make our lamps burn vividly our whole life.”
The little drops of oil have to accumulate over time, or we will be left in the dark.
College students are learning this lesson the hard way right now.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, even when schools are offering lessons in person they are also offering them online. Human nature looks for the path of least resistance, and many students are taking the opportunity to tune in only partially. They feel like they can coast at first and wait until later. They can ignore their Zoom class and watch the recording later, figure out the concepts eventually, and get ready for the final at the last minute.
We are the same way. It looks like we have all the time in the world, and we can take the shortcuts that are built into the system: Coast through the sacraments, and get to a relationship with Christ and a life of service later. Right about now, College students are learning that all of those assumptions are wrong. All of those unwatched lectures pile up, and it is too late to puzzle through the material with their professor, those undone assignments are overdue, and now they realize that they can’t do a semester’s worth of work in the few remaining weeks.
Neither can we do a lifetime’s work at the last hour before death. Ask priests what they see at most deathbeds.
Several priests have shared that they meet many people in hospitals or sick-beds who are coming to the end of their life and realizing that their faith is weak and their relationship with God is superficial. The choices they made over the years have locked God out. They never prayed, so God is foreign to them. They never got in the habit of service, so they are imprisoned in their own egoism. And they are frightened.
But the scarier stories are the ones priests never hear: Many Catholics who were catechized, received the sacraments and once believed in Jesus Christ are dying and not involving the Church at all. Their faith is so long gone that they feel no need for the sacraments. They are out of oil, waiting in the darkness, and they don’t care.
The fact is, there is no one alive today who should feel safely in the “Wise” category.
One of the marks of the foolish virgins is that they were complacently certain that they were just fine. None of us should feel like we are safely one of the virgins with oil, and that we can scoff at those who run out.
“There are two kinds of presumption,” says the Catechism. “Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).”
The sin of presumption is a twin to the sin of despair. In both we reject the idea that God is necessary to save us.
This Sunday’s readings in fact paint a picture that should make us worry that we are in the “foolish virgin” camp.
Wisdom, says the first reading, is “perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.” Are we one of those? Are we one of those who “watches for [Wisdom] before dawn”? How many of us “for her sake keeps vigil”? When she “makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,” how many of us does she find waiting?
How many of us can honestly say to God, with the Psalm, “for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts,” “lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name,” and “through the night watches I will meditate on you”?
This kind of daily seeking and waiting and thirsting for God’s grace is the very opposite of presumption, and it is necessary if we want to be ready to meet him at the end.
We have hope in the Second Reading, in one of the most beautiful passages in St. Paul to encourage us.
In the long version of the second reading, Paul sets the scene. After death and the individual judgment will come the final judgment. The Revised Standard translation gives Paul’s description with profound poetry:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
Our life is built for a beautiful ending. But we only get to see it if we advance toward it every day. St. Ambrose said, “For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life; there is the kingdom.” We can only spend our life after death with him if we start spending our life with him right now.